I didn’t have an easy time, growing up. I was one of five children in a working-class family from Basildon, Essex. I loved my parents, but I didn’t see much of them. With five mouths to feed, it was easy to get sidelined. Besides, I was always a bit different. From as early as I can remember, I struggled with severe dyslexia and dyspraxia. Of course, nobody knew that at the time — we didn’t know what either of those things were back then — so I was left alone to deal with it. What’s more, I found being in the town rather frightening. My way of coping was to lock myself away in my room, reading books and listening to music, especially the radio. I’d listen to anything — that’s how I spent most of my childhood.
It was the same for me at school. I found it very difficult to mix with other people. I was bright, but because of my dyslexia, I never performed very well. I had one really good teacher who identified there was a problem — he encouraged me to read and write more and I did improve, slowly, but that wasn’t enough to save me from failing all of my exams.
from that day, something inside me changed. I couldn’t stand to be myself, so I became somebody else: a show-off, incredibly driven, fixated on the idea that I would be successful.
When I was 15, I got a part-time job at a shoe shop. While working there, I was sexually assaulted by the store manager. I didn’t report it to the police at the time, and I felt too ashamed to tell my friends or family. I just buried it. But from that day, something inside me changed. I couldn’t stand to be myself, so I became somebody else: a show-off, incredibly driven, fixated on the idea that I would be successful.
This determination carried me to college to study drama, despite leaving school with no formal qualifications. I was good at drama; it suited me. I even got a place to continue my studies at the prestigious Royal Academy in London — but I couldn’t go. At the time, you had to apply for grants for university, and my parents didn’t really understand it. All of my brothers and my sister had gone into the building trade or the NHS. They didn’t want their son going to university to do ‘poncy acting’. So, my parents didn’t fill out the grant forms for me, and I never went. It wasn’t their fault and there was nothing wrong at all in the way that their lives progressed, it’s just that I raised my head over another kind of cultural parapet. It was the only thing I could do.
I began drinking regularly at after-hours clubs and then, quite suddenly, cocaine reared its head.
Nevertheless, I was so convinced that I was destined for a career in acting that, aged 20, I wrote to every theatre in London asking them for a job. I figured if I could at least get a job backstage, I’d eventually end up acting on one. In the end, I landed a job working as a technician at the very reputable Gielgud Theatre in London (formerly known as The Globe). But, after five years, I grew restless and got jobs at one theatre after another, until eventually I worked my way up to managing my own. Before long, I was rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in comedy and music, and I was completely enraptured with my new ‘showbiz’ lifestyle. I began drinking regularly at after-hours clubs and then, quite suddenly, cocaine reared its head.
What started as a casual cocaine habit quickly turned chronic. I was using all the time. Crack cocaine, too. I was a nasty piece of work back then; I was so into myself. I managed to keep my job, but only because, in that circle of highflyers, that sort of behaviour was the norm. It didn’t take long before I was addicted.
I was steered to some local Cocaine Anonymous (CA) groups by the brother of my then-girlfriend, and I went for a while, thinking I wasn’t as bad as the other people there (looking back, I clearly was). I kept it up and was clean for about a year before my girlfriend left me and I suffered a serious nervous breakdown. It felt like the whole world had been swept from under my feet. I was prescribed antidepressants but, ultimately, I started using cocaine again. I was just using and using, until I was in a total mess.
At that point, my best friend said to me, “Ralph, stop it. Drop everything and come and live with me in Yorkshire for a while. Get yourself clean, don’t worry about the money — we’ll figure it out.”
So I did. I left London, sold my flat, and moved to Wakefield in West Yorkshire. I tried to relax there but still couldn’t silence the voice in the back of my head telling me to find work. I wasn’t having much luck in Wakefield, so in desperation, I headed up to Edinburgh Festival where I came across a theatre company who needed a new producer. I produced a play with them called ‘Heroin(e) for Breakfast’ which won a number of awards and got to tour around the world. I was so proud of it.
I just couldn’t accept what was enough for me. You can be happy, but you want to be happier. It’s never enough.
Thanks to the play, I got noticed by the Arts Council, who gave me a job travelling the country and developing new artists. It was a great job and I knew I was really helping people but, somehow, I still wasn’t satisfied. The work meant I was spending quite a lot of time on my own and the anxiety started to creep back in. I started using heavily again and it rapidly got out of control. It was the worst relapse I’ve ever had. I betrayed everyone: I betrayed my best friend — who at that point was my partner — and I betrayed my family.
I had a stint in rehab and it worked out well, but that wasn’t the end of it. Three months after I left, I was using again. I started going to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) in Sheffield and managed to get clean – for a while. I left the Arts Council and went freelance, working as an independent producer, arts funder, writer and performer. I was a part of the Hull City of Culture project, producing spoken word and poetry for them, and I was so happy because I’d got myself clean.
And then, out of nowhere — that’s how it seems to happen — I started using again. I just couldn’t accept what was enough for me. You can be happy, but you want to be happier. It’s never enough. So just like that, I lost it all. My partner left me. All of the money went. My life just ground to a halt. It was horrible. I’d ruined everything.
things were ticking over relatively well until one morning the police came knocking. They were arresting me for money laundering.
It was then that I decided to completely step back from working in the arts. I managed to get a job in a local community centre to keep myself quiet while I really focussed on getting clean. And I did. I lost so many friends during that period. But I did get clean.
I managed to keep my lovely little flat in Wakefield, and things were ticking over relatively well until one morning the police came knocking. They were arresting me for money laundering. When I was using drugs, there was lots of money moving in and out of different bank accounts. There was no foul play — I was just an addict. I explained that to them and fortunately they did believe me. However, they said something to me that I’ll never forget:
“Ralph, this isn’t about money laundering so much, it’s about people being trafficked from Eastern Europe — women, men and children. The money you’ve spent on drugs has contributed to that”.
One of the officers looked me square in the eye and said “Ralph, people have died”.
I think that moment in the police station was when everything really, fully changed. I realised I had to be something else, something more than that past.
That was devastating to hear. It brought me to my knees and actually caused me a bout of ill-health. I didn’t start using again but I had to attend therapy for years after that. I think that moment in the police station was when everything really, fully changed. I realised I had to be something else, something more than that past.
I have often wondered what might have been. If I wasn’t sexually assaulted, how might things have been different? If there was any awareness around dyslexia and dyspraxia, would I have been encouraged to live a different life? Would I not have isolated myself? I think about what I could have done instead with all the time spent in the throes of addiction; I could have been writing, I could have been a kinder person to the people I damaged, and I could have been kinder to myself.
But I’m not rushing to play catch up. I’m happy now. I have a new partner and we’re in a positive, stable relationship. My best friend is back and she lives down the road — we see each other all the time and we’re closer than ever. I’ve written about my experiences in my first book, Recovery Songs, and I’ve been commissioned to write a second. I’m currently mid-way through an MA in creative writing, my grades are good, and I’m planning to do a PhD once I finish. I also work in recovery centres and halfway houses, teaching creative writing and performance workshops to recovering addicts and people getting released from prison.
we mustn’t let our pasts overwhelm us. We must concentrate on bringing out our best qualities and try to recognise that the things that have happened don’t define us.
There was a beautiful moment when I came down to London with my partner to participate in the ‘Truth Project’, an initiative set up to offer victims and survivors of child sexual abuse a chance to share their experiences. I was so nervous about opening up to them, but it was such a warm, welcoming atmosphere and this amazing woman, a psychologist, said to me “Ralph, this isn’t your fault, what happened to you — you were a boy”.
That was so important to hear. It was a burden I had carried for such a long time: the idea that what happened was somehow my fault. To hear her say it wasn’t lightened that load, and helped me move forward.
Many of the friends I lost have come back, which is a great thing, but some of them I expect never will. I can’t blame them. But I would say, to others dealing with someone who has been in trouble with addiction: try not to judge them on the ‘then’ but look at the ‘now’. I strongly believe that and champion it with everybody I work with.
And to others, like me, who have been through this nightmare — we mustn’t let our pasts overwhelm us. We must concentrate on bringing out our best qualities and try to recognise that the things that have happened don’t define us.
Slowly, I’ve been getting better at coming to terms with what happened to me and the damage that I’ve done to others. I’ve got a completely different perspective now. I have healthy goals and ambitions, and I have different priorities. I don’t think I’ll be going back.
Ralph’s book, ‘Recovery Songs’ is published by Valley Press and is available at most bookshops or from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Recovery-Songs-Ralph-Dartford/dp/1912436280/ref=sr_1_1?qid=1571297150&refinements=p_27%3ARalph+Dartford&s=books&sr=1-1
Here is a link to film of one of the poems that are featured in the book. ‘Linwood House’: https://ludostudio.vids.io/videos/1c9dddbe131ae2ca94/poem-mp4